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How collective grief shaped Mastodon’s most grandiose, gut-wrenching album ever

The passing of band manager and close friend Nick John in September 2018 was a deep wound for Mastodon. As astonishing double-album Hushed & Grim looms, the Atlanta metal masters explain how they’ve processed that pain into an epic reckoning on life and death, grief and the great hereafter...

How collective grief shaped Mastodon’s most grandiose, gut-wrenching album ever
Words:
Sam Law
Photos:
Andrew Lipovsky

When Mastodon called on their great friend Nick John at the tail-end of summer 2018, they knew they would be doing so for the final time. News that the long serving manager – often referred to as the “fifth member” of the band – was nearing the end of his brave battle with pancreatic cancer had cut deep, and the four boarded flights to Los Angeles braced for an agonising goodbye. As the door opened into Nick’s house, however, a space littered with the apparatus of home hospice care, its atmosphere of soul-shrivelling powerlessness, whispered resignation and gut-lurching dread stained itself onto the band’s collective memory.

“It’s a feeling you’re never prepared for,” sighs guitarist Bill Kelliher. “You hear about people who’ve passed away over the phone or on Facebook, and it’s sad. But when you’re actually there in the room with the person in their very last moments, it’s tangible. It shows you how short life can be, how unfair, how grim. It can be awkward, too. No-one really knows what to say or do. There are so many emotions: sadness, helplessness, depression, anxiety, anger, contemplating life itself.”

Mastodon’s sprawling eighth album Hushed And Grim is a monument to that moment, and an abstract chronicle of the years of processing that followed. Its title is borrowed from a textual interlude in 1939 cinematic epic Gone With The Wind, the all-time classic set in Mastodon’s native Atlanta during the American Civil War, and the film’s themes of heartbreak and socio-political division simmer subliminally throughout. Drummer Brann Dailor speaks of going through some “pretty awful personal stuff” too, while the spectre of the millions of lives lost to COVID haunts the albums countless dark corners. Ultimately, though, the album’s message of personal remembrance and contemplation of mortality couldn’t really be mistaken for anything else.

“Hushed And Grim is a mood,” nods Brann. “It’s about grief, about guilt, about all those fun feelings. It’s awful seeing your friend suffer like that and knowing there’s nothing that you can do. If you know, you know…”

Of course, this is not the first time Mastodon have focused an album on the death of a loved one. Much of 2002’s debut LP Remission and 2009’s Crack The Skye found Brann wrestling with the memory of his sister, who died age 14. 2011’s The Hunter was a tribute to guitarist Brent Hinds’ brother Brad, who passed away on a hunting trip. Once More ‘Round The Sun was written in the wake of Brann’s mother having fallen into a coma. 2017’s Emperor Of Sand chronicles the cancer suffered by bassist Troy Sanders’ wife, and Bill’s mother who passed away during recording.

"It feels like someone has to die for us to make an album"

Hear Brent discuss how creating art can be the perfect tribute to a lost loved one

Although the average Mastodon jam session is bookended by 30 minutes of frank discussion about love and loss, life and death, there is still a need to speak deeper truths through louder means. “We’re dudes and we’re guarded in those respects,” reasons Brann. “Emotionally, I think we don’t say as much as we want to. The way we say it without saying it is through our music.”

“As you get older, you start to lose people,” continues Bill, perhaps alluding to the subsequent passing of veteran tour manager Bob Dallas in February 2019. “I guess we’re getting to be pros at it. It’s not like, ‘Hey, feel sorry for us, we’ve lost someone.’ It’s about facing head on the path of life into death.”

“It’s about taking the factual, brutal darkness of a life’s moment, then really trying to navigate through and beyond it,” picks up Troy, who notes that, unlike his bandmates, Nick’s passing was his first close-up experience with grief. “Writing and recording this record was like grief counselling for me: started out feeling horrific, came out feeling fantastic. Even if we wanted to write a happier record, we couldn’t. Our band doesn’t work that way. We can’t just shovel all of the darkness aside and say that everything was great.”

Characteristically unsubtle, Brent hammers the point home.

“It feels like someone has to die for us to make an album. I hate this feeling. But, when loved ones close to us pass, we feel obligated to pay this tribute to them musically for some reason. We’ve got all of these records under our belt, and so many of them are paying homage to fallen friends. We’ve been through some rough shit, like most people have. We just choose to take time to give it what feels like a forever place in the world.

“When you make music about someone who’s passed, it makes them still alive.”

Ultimately, the only way out of grief is through. We’ve travelled almost exactly three times around the sun since Nick’s passing when we sit down with each of Mastodon’s members, and there’s a low-key catharsis in their focus on the road ahead. Frustration builds today, as Manchester, TN’s Bonnaroo festival – only their second performance in front of an audience since lockdown – is rained-off by Hurricane Ida. But defeat turns to victory, as a last-minute offer comes in to replace Philip H Anselmo & The Illegals at Pryor, OK’s Rocklahoma instead. As each player gears up for another album cycle after their longest-ever time away, now more than ever, they appear as constituent cornerstones in a greater whole.

Far beyond the drumstool, Brann feels like the driving force. Greeting us from a colourfully-decorated attic space – trademark silver canine tooth catching the eye – it’s clear his inspiration is as endless as it is elaborate, and, although he performs with local synth metallers Arcadea, every bright idea is poured into Mastodon. Brent, by comparison, remains ever the wildcard. He’s as happy writing alone as he is playing with others, and he’s as committed to getting through this weekend’s hometown show with his old friends in West End Motel as he is to hopping on a Sunday-morning flight to The Sooner State.

Troy and Bill are dedicated family men. We catch the former as he checks in with his wife and kids on Florida’s sandy Gulf Coast before hitting the road again. Rejuvenated by a few years of prolific writing, which saw the release of excellent albums with Gone Is Gone and Killer Be Killed in late 2020, his musical horizons are expanded and he’s ready to “up the ante” with “main concern” Mastodon. The latter has just woken up after a nap on the couch with his dogs. Frequently called ‘the hardest-working man in rock’ by his friends, Bill’s quick to reaffirm his riffmaster status with his custom Silverburst ESP Sparrowhawk close to hand, but his shrewd property investments have been equally important in getting this album over the line.

Ember City Studios – a red brick refuge in Atlanta’s industrial south-west, away from the clogged streets and overcrowding that’s resulted from much of America’s film industry relocating to the city – opened in 2017, offering invaluable rehearsal space not just to Mastodon, but dozens of local musicians. Partnering with longtime engineer Tom Tapley, Bill oversaw the conversion of Ember City’s basement into West End Sound, a fully kitted-out recording studio, allowing the band to create on their own unbending terms. “With it being our studio,” he smiles, “it doesn’t feel like the clock’s ticking and the money’s rushing out the door.”

Although Mastodon’s writing-process is constant – always collecting interesting imagery and ideas, and making deposits in the “riff bank” – the process of bringing together album number eight coincided roughly with the studio’s opening in late 2019.

Even before lockdown, it offered a blank canvas for creativity. Fallen Torches from 2020’s Medium Rarities compilation was the first song recorded there. Rufus Lives from the Bill & Ted Face The Music soundtrack came together over the space of an hour. Forged By Neron, which went to the DC Dark Nights: Death Metal Soundtrack was one of a wealth of others written and demoed, including a set of what Brent tantalisingly describes as “proggy punk-rock songs” and “long Sabbathy-sounding shit” currently held back for a less sombre release.

When lockdown descended, the space became a refuge to narrow their vision. Having legendary Canadian producer David Bottrill – a veteran of prog icons Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and Tool, recommended specifically by the latter’s sticksman Danny Carey – agree to join them saw a final vision come into focus.

“His pedigree was all up in our wheelhouse,” grins Brann, who unapologetically nerded out. “The one word we all agreed on was clarity. We have a tendency to muddle our compositions by putting everything and the kitchen sink on the one track. We want to be able to still do that – to still have that psychedelic, wall-of-sound heavy rock – but I also wanted to be able to hear every little thing.”

Just as important as detail, was scope. Clocking in at 15 tracks over 88 minutes, Hushed And Grim’s final blueprint was that of a massive multi-part saga far beyond anything Mastodon had attempted before. In the streaming era, the ‘double-album’ tag mightn’t carry the inherent prestige it once did, but the sheer sweep and complexity here deliberately evokes the epics of Brann’s childhood: Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Pink Floyd’s The Wall…

“I was listening at home, and these 15 songs just seemed to work well together,” the drummer shrugs. “I remember thinking, ’I know this is crazy, but maybe we should consider the idea of putting out a double-album and have it be an hour and a half long.’ I thought that someone would shoot me down, but here we are. I liked the space that it gave itself. I liked the quieter moments, and the airier ones.”

He pauses for a moment, before flashing a knowing grin.

“If there’s a band out there that people expected to do a double-album at some point, it was probably us…”

Few, however, could have expected this. Mastodon set their compass for uncharted territory on every fresh release, and there was an implicit understanding amongst fans that album eight would see them traverse starker soundscapes and stranger tides, but, even still, Hushed And Grim comes on as a daunting, at times overwhelming listen. From weird, woozy opener Pain With An Anchor’s spiralling ode to the grieving process to the purgative widescreen sweep of near-seven-minute finale Gigantium, there is a sense of building relief, but the tempestuous moods and knotty motifs take several listens to truly begin to navigate.

“It’s sort of like a new version of an afterlife mythology,” Brann teases the record’s “loose” overarching concept, tying into its strikingly penumbral artwork. “When you die, your soul inhabits the heart of a living tree. You have to experience the seasons the way that a tree does through a whole calendar year. That’s the way you have to say goodbye to the natural world. And in that time, you reflect on the pillars of the life that you lived. You get to atone for things that you’ve done.”

It’s an intriguing overview that cleverly shifts focus from the mourning to the mourned, from death’s trauma to its inevitability, simultaneously inviting the living to take stock of their affairs before it’s too late.

The sublimely eerie Sickle And Peace, for instance, complete with its creepy vocal cameo from Tom Tapley’s daughter (‘Death comes and brings with him sickle and peace’) dares to acknowledge the mercy that death brings to those who are suffering. Tracks like hooky highlight Teardrinker (‘Leaving you behind / is the hardest thing I’ve done’) and the enormous More Than I Could Chew (‘Say when / And I’ll come running back’), meanwhile, ebb with the living heartache of unresolved regret.

"The concept is like a new version of an afterlife mythology"

Listen to Brann explain the deep, philosophical story underpinning Hushed And Grim

David’s focus on diction and pronunciation emphasised every emotion, offering no hiding-place for vocalists who’d previously used distortion as a defence-mechanism. “He said to us that we’d written these lyrics that are important to us and the people around us, so let’s hear them,” enthuses Brann. “I feel like, in the past, we’ve had a tendency to hide. [These lyrics are] a sort of poetry which can be scary to put out there to be critiqued.”

“Even though it’s a long album, and there are a lot of songs there, I feel like we did a better job of weeding through the bullshit and getting to the point,” agrees Troy. “A lot of time when you’re writing a song you talk about trimming the fat. We did that across the whole album.”

In instrumental terms, too, invention was needed to encapsulate this journey beyond the realms of death. Old influences, from Rush and Thin Lizzy to Melvins and Björk, are repurposed, but there are elements of the slower, more repetitive atmospherics of outfits like Neurosis and Isis, too.

Collaboration amongst what Brann calls a “family” of friends, relatives and esteemed peers brings warmth and poignancy to what could’ve been a cold, dark listen. The Claypool Lennon Delirium keyboardist João Nogueira contributes keyboards throughout, with his outrageous synth crescendo two-thirds into Skeleton Of Splendour a jaw-dropping highlight. Rising blues guitarist Marcus King features on the B-Bender inflected bluegrass intro to shapeshifting stand-out The Beast. Municipal Waste’s Dave Witte (a friend of Brann’s since he was 15 years old) thumped tribal drums on Dagger, helping build an exotic soundscape unlike any Mastodon have conjured before.

Had It All – which sounds like it could’ve been lifted from Troy’s sessions with Gone Is Gone – is arguably the closest this band have ever come to writing a ballad, and its immensely moving chorus (‘You had it all / Tomorrow’s never fine / The peace we lost in ourselves are never found / You’re going to make it’) sits side-by-side with a squalling solo from Soundgarden great Kim Thayil and classical French horn courtesy of Troy's mother Jody.

Above all, Hushed And Grim is a record for listeners to dig into in search of solace and empathy. “When fans reach for Mastodon, they’re reaching for the medicine,” explains Bill, who reads all of the band’s correspondence and prides himself in his songs’ therapeutic power. Still, sitting down with the final music and lyric sheet here, he was taken aback.

“It was like, ‘Jesus Christ, this is really a step up for us!’ But of course it is. We’re getting older, having more experiences, getting better at what we do. We have that obligation to the fans to relate to them on that personal level, and that’s what this record is all about. It’s not just about grief and suffering. It’s about trying to overcome those things and get through them together.”

Marking their 21st ‘birthday’ as a band, Mastodon released a gleefully tongue-in-cheek vignette to social media. All four members walk into a bar, wielding party hats, shit-eating grins, and an oversized driver’s license to order “one beer” between them. Drunken frivolity ensues. Having reached the milestone, we wonder whether any more serious existential questions are swirling in the backs of their minds, about their own ticking clocks, legacy, and status as metal’s 21st Century standard-bearers?

“I do the math in my head sometimes,” Brann tackles the question, with a hint of mischief. “Like, when we went on tour with Slayer in 2004, they’d been a band for 21 years, and now we’re as old as they were at that point. Or, in 1988, I was getting into thrash, and Black Sabbath were about 20 years in. I loved them, but it was like, ‘God, these guys are old…’ Maybe kids nowadays think that Mastodon are this really old, classic band. If you’re putting the work in, and you honestly love what you’re doing, though, then the legacy will work itself out.”

Brent contends that they simply can’t match the extremity of metal’s cutting edge. A time is coming, he reckons, when bands like Mastodon and Baroness will fall into the category of classic rock. But that’s okay. “We’re all approaching 50 now. We don’t have all that angst, but we have riffs and a bad-ass drummer, and that’s really all you need.”

Indeed, it’s their unaffected, inward focus that has characterised Mastodon every step of the way, and won legions of truly dedicated fans. Troy speaks of the band’s enduring mission to carve their own unique niche through the world of rock’n’roll. The uncertain silence of lockdown proved it was more urgent than ever.

“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” smiles Brann, reflectively. “Mastodon was gone for a few months, and we didn’t know when it was coming back. That brought us together, and [reaffirmed] how precious this is.” Bill nods his agreement. “I’m never going to take the band for granted again. We’ve got a great thing going here, and we’ve got a million great fans. They’re dying to see us play, and we’re dying to play for them. I’m going to try and do as many shows as we possibly can before it’s our time.”

"The way we talk about our emotions is with our music"

Hear Brann discuss how Mastodon use music to communicate their true emotions to and with each other

It’s more than mutual purpose, of course, that’s bound these metal masters for close to a quarter-century where so many other groups have splintered or faded away. Pride, financial necessity, and mutual admiration of each other’s creativity and virtuosity play their part. Most pivotal, they tell us, is freedom – to express the wildest musical ideas, and to step away from band life when necessary. Like siblings, the quartet can scatter to the wind, safe in the knowledge it’ll never be long before destiny calls them back together.

“We can still make each other laugh,” says Brent. “We can still piss each other off. We’re like brothers. But where brothers can stop talking after a while, we have a very important mission together, bringing this music into people’s lives. We’ve wanted this since we were children and young adults, and now that we have it, we want to keep it. This band feels even more like a gang these days because of how long we’ve been doing it.”

“Mastodon feels as much like home now as ever,” nods Troy. “We’re not phoning it in, or releasing something obligatory. Hushed And Grim was our most collaborative effort to date. There’s no one songwriter or lyricist. We’re all contributing, all writing, all committed to taking a risk. That exemplifies the term ‘band’. 17 years ago, we took a risk writing an album about Moby Dick. Now we’re taking a risk with a double-album. If it feels right, we do it.”

“It’s a cliché,” concludes Brann, “but we’ve been through so much shit together – and all that shit is embedded in these songs – that I would hate to ever have to say goodbye to one of those guys. I think it would take something pretty remarkable to break us up. We’ve had plenty of blow outs and fights, hurt feelings and angry moments, but there’s nothing that can’t be talked through. I look at Troy and Brent and Bill and we’ve experienced it all from start to finish. We all were sleeping on those floors at the beginning, and the stories since are 20 miles long. I don’t have that shared history with other people. The more experience you have, the more important it becomes to keep it all together somehow.

“I need to keep those guys. We need to keep each other.”

Mastodon's new album Hushed And Grim is released October 29 via Reprise Records.

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